JERUSALEM — Moving quickly to fill the diplomatic and economic vacuum created by the deterioration of relations between Turkey and Israel, a new regional partnership is being formed by Israel and Greece.
With Cyprus as a catalyst for rapprochement and wide-ranging cooperation, the ultimate goal is a new multinational bloc that could include Bulgaria and Albania.
The University of Piraeus’ Professor Aristotle Tziampiris described the new links between Athens and Jerusalem as an informal alliance that “has the potential to bring Israel closer to Europe and act as a source of regional stability.”
Eventually, he told a recent academic gathering at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, Greece could help reduce tension that was spawned by Israel’s airborne operation last May against ships that set sail from Turkey to run the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Nine Turkish passengers aboard the Comoros-flageed Mavi Marmara were killed in clashes with Israeli commandos.
While it may seem surprising that Athens could play a constructive role in mollifying the Turks, Tziampiris said, it should be borne in mind that “Athens maintains good relations with Ankara. … The elimination of all strained regional relations is ultimately in its (Greece) best interest.”
The newly upgraded contacts between Greece and Israel already have produced tangible results. Trade between the two countries totaled $500 million this past year and is increasing. The Israelis export computer software as well as electronic and medical equipment; the Greeks, raw materials and agricultural products.
In addition, Israeli tourism to Greece has increased by 50 percent in the same time frame.
This upsurge came in the wake of Prime Minister George Papandreou’s official visit to Jerusalem and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reciprocal visit to Athens. Netanyahu’s trip, which took place last August, marked the first time an Israeli prime minister was hosted officially in the Greek capital.
There also has been a little publicized, but significant meeting in Athens between leaders of the American-Jewish community and Greek government officials.
Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, quoted members of Greece’s resident Jewish community as saying their status in Greek society has been enhanced by the current diplomatic initiatives. He said Israel’s foreign ministry’s staff has been seeking ways to further expand and improve relations.
Long-range Greek interest in Israel’s natural gas is a major, if not dominant, catalyst in the ongoing rapprochement. With the main impetus evidently coming from Cyprus, which would be one of the projected recipients, experts from all three countries have been preparing blueprints for these underwater conduits. They could link Israel’s Leviathian natural gas field to Crete as well as Cyprus.
From the strategic standpoint, this could be a “game changer,” Tziampiris said. “It certainly would alter Israel’s position vis-a-vis Europe and lessen the continent’s energy dependence on Russia (especially significant now, since the Nabucco gas pipeline project appears problematic).
Tziampiris cited several concrete steps taken by Greece in the spirit of the new relationship with Israel. Referring to the forest fire that devastated the Carmel Mountain Range near Haifa two months ago, he recalled that Greece mounted a 70-member rescue operation of pilots, firefighters and several planes.
Routinely, the Greek and Israeli air forces and navies have conducted joint exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.
The United States evidently is favorably disposed to the positive turn in Greco-Israeli relations and has been nurturing it. This is a reflection of its having won strong congressional support.
One of the potential impediments to a genuine rapprochement is the degree that anti-Semitism persists within Greece’s body politic. However, Tziampiris contends that it is limited to “the far left and far right” while the overwhelming majority of Greece’s population is immune to it. He noted that a Greek Orthodox archbishop was recently chastised publicly for derogatory comments regarding Jews.
There is a significant historical precedent for the positive trend in Greco-Israeli relations. Greece’s initial entry to the Holy Land under the command of Alexander the Great had a major cultural impact on the Kingdom of Judea, which he conquered 2,300 years ago. It fostered a revision of religious concepts especially in the more affluent segment of Judean society and caused a sharp division between Hellenists and Chasidim. It also led to the incorporation of many Greek words into Hebrew, an effect still evident in modern Hebrew as spoken and written in contemporary Israel.
(Jay Bushinsky, an Israel-based political columnist can be reached at Jay@actcom.co.il.)
(Editor’s note: In response to a Feb. 3 letter to the editor regarding his Jan. 20 column on illegal immigration to Israel, Mr. Bushinsky has issued this statement: “There was an unfortunate misunderstanding on my part with regard to the circumstances in which 143 illegal African immigrants left Israel for their native lands late last year. Local newspaper reports on which my comments were based said their departure was due to coercion by Israeli law enforcement authorities. However, the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman, Yigal Palmor, who is a very honest and reliable source of information, said the Africans had asked to leave and were neither coerced nor subject to any kind of pressure to that end. I trust Palmor and regret having relied exclusively on the Hebrew press’ version.)